NCAA Tournament Preview: Breaking down each region's top two seeds, dark horses and upset possibilities
No. 1 seed: Kansas Jayhawks
For the seventh time in the last 11 NCAA Tournaments, the Jayhawks earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. However, if there is one knock on Bill Self’s Hall of Fame résumé, it’s the fact that Kansas has *just* one national title and two Final Four appearances during his 14 years at the helm. With Wooden Award favorite Frank Mason III and dynamic guard Josh Jackson leading the way, the Jayhawks look like they have all the tools necessary to make a deep run and reach the Final Four for the first time since 2012.
No. 2 seed: Louisville Cardinals
After a one-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament due to a self-imposed postseason ban, Rick Pitino’s Cardinals are back as a No. 2 seed. Sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell is the headliner on a crazy athletic roster that makes its living on smothering opposing offenses. However, the Cardinals have been prone to prolonged scoring droughts throughout the season and are often shaky at the free-throw line. While a trip to the Final Four would come as no great surprise for this Louisville team, those are the sorts of deficiencies that can become fatal flaws come March, especially if you run into a hot-shooting team.
Dark horse: No. 7 seed Michigan Wolverines
A hot-shooting team, you say? Michigan has you covered. The Wolverines went from a team that looked destined for the NIT in early February to one that nobody wants to face in the NCAA Tournament. More consistent play on the offensive end, especially from senior point guard Derrick Walton Jr., and defensive adjustments have John Beilein’s team playing at an extremely high level right now. Their plane accident prior to the Big Ten Tournament, followed by them winning that tournament, made them college basketball’s best feel-good story this March. Warm and fuzzy narratives don’t make deep NCAA Tournament runs, but teams playing as well as Michigan with a difference-maker like Walton Jr. sure as heck can.
Team on upset alert: No. 6 seed Creighton Bluejays
An 11 seed over 6 seed upset isn’t the most inspired choice, but Creighton is certainly a team in danger of being ousted in the first round. Prior to losing star point guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the season to a torn ACL, the Bluejays were 18-1 and ranked No. 7 in the country. Since then, they’ve gone 7-8 and simply haven’t looked like the same team without him. Meanwhile, Rhode Island, a preseason top-25 team, saved what could have been a lost season by winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament to play itself off the bubble. It will be no surprise if the Rams knock off Creighton on Friday.
— Zach Rastall
No. 1 seed: Villanova Wildcats
Ready to repeat as champions, it is no surprise Villanova is dancing into the NCAA bracket with a No. 1 seed. Much of the Wildcats’ impressive résumé. comes from their elite road wins (Purdue, Notre Dame, Creighton). National Player of the Year candidate and senior guard Josh Hart leads the team, increasing his season average with 18.9 points per game (15.5 last season) and 40.7 percent from 3-point range (35.7 percent). If Hart keeps stealing loose balls, playing with pressure and driving to the hoop, the Wildcats are bound to give an opponent a Hart attack. Entering the preseason as a Top 5 team, they validated this spot all season. Their efficiency on the offensive end and ability to play deep should allow them to shine as the cream of the crop in the East Region.
No. 2 seed: Duke Blue Devils
Duke had a rollercoaster season, but enters the tournament as a No. 2 seed looking to perform up to their potential. Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who recently earned his 14th ACC tournament title, will need the team to shoot well from the outside and have their best defender, junior Grayson Allen step up to advance in the bracket. The 2017 ACC Tournament MVP, sophomore guard Luke Kennard averages 20 points per game and has been incredible from the 3-point arc all season. Using their strong teamwork, it is vital Duke takes advantage of Jayson Tatum’s versatility and finds a way to drive to the paint against No. 15 seed Troy.
Dark Horse: No. 6 seed SMU
For SMU to make a deep run in this tournament as a No. 6 seed, they will need key players like Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye to perform. As the American Athletic Conference Tournament’s most outstanding player, averaging 19 points per game, his ability to score and defend could create noise in the East. Senior guard Sterling Brown’s potential to take control and play stellar defense could carry SMU on a long ride through the tournament. Riding a 16-game winning streak, SMU could meet Lone Star State rival Baylor in the second round. The Mustangs are hoping to break a long drought of success, as they haven’t been to the Elite Eight since 1967.
Team on upset alert: No. 5 Virginia
Placed as a No. 5 seed for the fifth time in program history, Virginia will fight No. 12 seed UNC- Wilmington in the first showdown of the tournament. As the strongest defensive team in the country, the Cavaliers need to find offense against the Seahawks. Although Virginia beat UNC-Wilmington in 2010 in a 69-67 nailbiter, they rank as the second-worst team in the nation for rebounds. The Seahawk’s ability to play fast and use their passing lanes make Virginia a vulnerable team. UNC-Wilmington’s ability to force turnovers and handle the ball could break a few brackets.
— Noa Rubnitz
No. 1 seed: Gonzaga Bulldogs
Gonzaga has been a dominant force all year long and their record reflects that. Led by junior guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who averaged 16.9 ppg along with 5.7 rpg and 4.8 apg this past season, and senior center Przemek Karnowski, who averaged 12 ppg and 6 rpg, this team is extremely efficient on both offense and defense. Gonzaga ranked 13th in the country in points per game and 8th in the country in points allowed per game. However, these statistics are very inflated because of the weak conference in which they play in. Due to their easy schedule, this team could be overwhelmed in the NCAA tournament against improved competition.
No. 2 seed: Arizona Wildcats
Arizona has been a phenomenal team throughout the season. This team currently has a ton of momentum after defeating both UCLA and Oregon on their way to winning the Pac-12 championship. Arizona is led by sophomore guard Allonzo Trier who, despite missing the first half of the season, is averaging 17.3 ppg and 5 rpg. Freshman forward Lauri Markkanen complements Trier, who is averaging 15.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg. This team is extremely talented, but their coach Sean Miller has never been able to get past the Elite Eight during his tenure.
Dark horse: No. 5 seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Notre Dame, a 25-win team, has one of the best coaches in the region in Mike Brey, who has had tremendous success in previous tournaments, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2015. This team is also the best free throw shooting team in the country at 79.9 percent, which will help them win crucial games down the stretch. The Fighting Irish have tremendous depth at the guard position and forward Bonzie Colson, who is averaging 17.5 ppg and 10.2 rpg, is a force in the paint that will help consistently space out the floor. All of these components make Notre Dame a perfect tournament team that could make run through the West.
Team on upset alert: No. 6 seed Maryland Terrapins
The Terrapins have been wildly inconsistent all year, sometimes looking like the best team in the Big Ten and other times losing to teams like Pittsburgh, Nebraska and Penn State. Melo Trimble is in the upper echelon of point guards in the country, but even when he scores upwards of 25 points, like he did against Wisconsin, he often doesn’t get enough support around him. Xavier struggled down the stretch, losing seven of their last ten, but defeated No. 4 seed Butler in their penultimate game. Trevon Bluitt is averaging over 18 points per game and he could send the Terrapins back to College Park with a strong performance.
— Scott Reichel
No. 1 seed: North Carolina Tar Heels
The Tar Heels earned their 16th ever No. 1 seed, and will face No. 16 Texas Southern in Greenville, SC on Friday, March 17 to open up the tournament.
The Tar Heels lost in the National Championship Game last season to the Villanova Wildcats in an instant classic that featured dueling final shots. Many expected UNC to be back this season–and they were right. The Tar Heels won the ACC regular season title. Led by juniors Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II, UNC made it to the semi-finals of the ACC Tournament before losing to hated rival Duke.
No. 2 seed: Kentucky Wildcats
The Tar Heels are joined in the south by No. 2 seed Kentucky Wildcats, who won both the SEC regular season and conference tournament titles. Freshman phenom guard Malik Monk has led the Wildcats in scoring with 20.5 ppg, and freshman forward Edrice “Bam” Adebayo controls the paint for the Wildcats.
This is certainly the region for blue bloods, with the UCLA Bruins earning the No. 3 seed. Led by freshman point guard Lonzo Ball, who is currently a projected Top 5 pick in the NBA draft, UCLA finished in the Top 5 in the rankings. UCLA, UNC and Kentucky have 24 combined national titles, and with these three powerhouses in the same region, it’s likely the winner of the South could win this year’s title.
Dark horse: No. 10 seed Wichita State Shockers
After winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and sharing the regular season title, the Shockers seem incredibly low-seeded. According to KenPom, Wichita State is the eighth-best team in the country. Look for the Shockers to test Kentucky in the Round of 32, and to potentially keep dancing until the second weekend.
Team on upset alert: No. 5 seed Minnesota Golden Gophers
Coach Richard Pitino led the Golden Gophers to a 4th place finish in the Big Ten, but a five-seed may be a bit of a stretch for a Minnesota team that lost to No. 8 seed Wisconsin twice and No. 7 seed Michigan in the Big Ten tournament. Their matchup against the No. 12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders could be an interesting 5-12 upset to pick.
MTSU won the C-USA regular season title conference tournament in dominant fashion, only losing one game in conference play and winning by more than 10 points in each tournament game.
— Bremen Keasey
Check out the Daily Cardinal's full NCAA Tournament Preview package here